Yiddish in Britain

In writing on the first meeting of the World Council (Veltrat) for Yiddish and Jewish Culture in Jerusalem in August 1976, Jacob Sonntag asked: “What about the outcome of the Conference? Will it have a lasting effect or will it remain an isolated episode in the history of Yiddish? It is difficult to say.” It is perhaps still difficult to say. Yiddish has continued to decline as a major language of the Jews, but the renewed interest in Yiddish, especially among young people for whom it is not their first language, has continued. In the last twelve years there has been an expansion of Yiddish teaching in schools and in Adult Education. Significantly there has also been an increase in its use amongst the Chassidim, though hardly linked to the efforts of the Veltrat.

Many Yiddish writers, like Sholem Aleykhem, never felt quite comfortable in “cold” London, but the British metropolis will at last be host to a session (the fifth) of the World Council of Yiddish. Modern day Yiddishists could never be accused of lacking a sense of history and participants could not fail to bear in mind that it is the eightieth anniversary of the most famous Jewish language conference of them all, held from 30 August to 3 September 1908 in Czernowitz, Bukovina, then a part of Frantsjosefs Medine (the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

At that time, the Yiddishists wanted Yiddish recognized as the language of the Jewish people, since it was the language which most of the world’s Jews then spoke. Critics argued that Hebrew was the language of the Jewish people, the core language of the entire Jewish experience.

The Zionist hope was, of course, that Hebrew would become the mass Jewish vernacular. The Yiddishists’ dream has been tragically shattered, but neither do most Jews in the world speak Hebrew, even if they are capable of uttering prayers in the language.

Holding the Conference in London is meant to draw attention to the fact that epes hert zikh (“something’s going on”)—albeit on a modest scale—in Britain. Stencl’s Shabes-literarishe nokhmitogs (“Shabbos afternoon literary circle”) continues to meet every week, as it has done so for over forty years—now at 3pm in Toynbee Hall, Commercial St, E1. The Mame-loshn Ring, a group which holds meetings on all aspects of Yiddish culture in Yiddish and which meets monthly on a Sunday at 33 Seymour Place, W1, is now in its fifth year. The Yiddish actors Anna Tzelniker, Harry Ariel and Bernard Mendelovitch continue to perform “wherever anyone wants to hear a Yiddish von”, and have recently been celebrated on radio and television. There have been Yiddish films at the National Film Theatre and at the Everyman Cinema, Hampstead. Last year there was a Festival of Yiddish Culture on the South Bank and the Festival of the Jewish East End also provided the occasion for the celebration of Yiddish culture, including an excellent exhibition on the Yiddish Theatre in London in the foyer of the National Theatre, organized by David Mazower.

Under the guidance of Dovid Katz, Oxford has become a major centre of Yiddish learning, attracting students from all over the world, and its summer courses in Yiddish are now well-established. Two years ago the Council for the Promotion of Yiddish and Jewish Culture in the United Kingdom was set up and has since, under the chairmanship of Ben Helfgott, been active in stimulating Yiddish activities.

Young people have been particularly drawn toward Yiddish through music. A Yiddish Folk-song Workshop was started in London by Chaim Neslen three years ago and the recent “Gathering of the Alternative Jewish Network—Ruakh” in Leeds included sessions on Yiddish folksong.

The B’nai B’rith Jewish Music Festival has been promoting Yiddish activities and are to bring the Ida Kaminska Polish State Yiddish Theatre Company of Warsaw to the Almeida Theatre in Islington in October this year. The Spiro Institute plans to establish a centre of Jewish culture in northwest London where, it is hoped, Hebrew and Yiddish will be able to coexist happily.

The Czernowitz conference of 1908 finally proclaimed that Hebrew and Yiddish were both national languages of the Jewish people. There are of course many others—the most well-known being Ladino—which harbour rich legacies of culture. Perhaps a place will be found here for them as well.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1988

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